By Vera E. Abah
A COURT battle between the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Ayuba Wabba, versus National Record and its publisher, Comrade Iduh L. Onah, has commenced at the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory sitting in Jabi, Abuja, where Comrade Wabba had earlier this year filed a suit alleging that the online newspaper and its publisher libelled him.
The matter, which came up in Court 22 of the FCT High Court, Jabi, could however not go on as scheduled on Tuesday. Hearing was therefore deferred to 2023 by the presiding judge, His Lordship, the Honourable Justice Hassan Babangida, who adjourned the matter to 25th January for hearing of a pending application, which O. P. Egbe-Okpenge, Esq., the defence counsel, told National Record is an application to regularise the statement of defence and counter claim.
Comrade Wabba is challenging the accuracy and journalistic objectivity of National Record‘s publication of December 26, 2021 in which it reported the reactions of Employees of NLC to his (Wabba’s) scathing criticism of other employers who failed to pay their employees their December salaries before Christmas as contained in his press statement, which National record published on Christmas Day, under the headline: “Unpaid Dec. Salaries: NLC Condemns Employers for turning Joy of Xmas to ‘a Jam of Pain”.
In the report, entitled “NLC staff Accuse Wabba of Hypocrisy for Not Paying Dec. Salary Yet Condemns Others,” the employees, all of who pleaded anonymity for fear of retribution from the NLC boss, alleged, among other things, that Wabba, as President of NLC, did not authorise the payment of December salaries before Christmas and therefore lacked the moral high ground to be critical of other employers of labour who failed to pay their own workers before Christmas.
But in the pending suit, Comrade Wabba, who is the sole claimant in the matter, is praying the court for a declaration that the report is not only sensational but also “malicious, defamatory, libelous, derogatory, scandalous and made out of malevolence, spite, ill-will and bad faith deliberately to impugn, malign, injure, assassinate and destroy his image, integrity and hard earned reputation which took him several years of remarkable and enviable selfless service to the fatherland and humanity at large to build.”
Wabba is also seeking for an order “directing the Defendants jointly and severally to publish an unconditional retraction of the false, misleading, malicious and defamatory report and story published on 26th December, 2022 against the Claimant in the Defendants’ National Record online newspaper,” and another order “directing the Defendants jointly and severally to render a clearly worded unreserved and/or unconditional apology to the Claimant to be conspicuously published in the National Record online Newspaper for their damaging and baseless report, story and allegations against the Claimant.”
The NLC boss is equally asking the court to direct National Record and its publisher who are 1st and 2nd defendants, respectively, “to pay the sum of N1,000,000,000.00 (one Billion Naira only)… [to him] as damages and compensation for the pain, injury, agony, psychological trauma, mental torture, anxiety and emotional breakdown he had gone through, and had to live with since the release, circulation and publication of the said highly scandalous and defamatory report, and story against” him, as well as the cost of the litigation which he claimed is five hundred thousand naira only.
In his statement of claim, Wabba averred that he is “an elder statesman, a celebrated community leader, a distinguished member of the national institute, a renowned labour activist as well as one of the most accomplished Presidents of the Nigeria Labour Congress that Nigeria had.”
Defendants Ask Court to Join NLC, Wabba, Ugboaja in Suit
The defendants, National Record and its publisher, Comrade Onah, in their joint statement of defence and counter claim, are praying the court to join the NLC, its president, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, and its General Secretary, Comrade Emmanuel Ugboaja, in the suit as 1st, 2nd 3rd defendants to be counter claimed.
The defendants averred that joining them in the matter at hand is compellingly necessary as “the infractions complained of by the Counter Claimants in this Counter-claim are intertwined with the person of the 2nd defendant to counter claim [Wabba], the platform (1st defendant to counter claim) [NLC] upon which these infractions were perpetrated, as well as the instrumentality (3rd defendant to counter claim) [Ugboaja] thereof.”
The defendants also averred that the NLC, Wabba and Ugboaja had on December 31, 2021 on the official website of the NLC caused to be published a press statement entitled; “EXPOSING AND DEBUNKING A PATTERN OF MALICIOUS SLANDER AND LIBELLOUS PUBLICATIONS AGAINST THE LEADERSHIP OF THE NIGERIA LABOUR CONGRESS” conveying statements attributed “heavily laden with libelous matter published against the Counter Claimants [Onah and National Record],” who have since then “continued to face disdain and rebuff from members of the public, especially amongst journalists within the 1st defendant to counter claim who are now careful about relating with the Counter Claimants due to the publication of 31st December, 2021.”
According to the defendants, “several statements in the publication by the 1st, 2nd and 3rd defendants to counter claim dated 31st December, 2022 are false, malicious and only targeted at derogating the personality of the Counter Claimants.
“To mention a few are the following: (a) That the 2nd Counter Claimant was an intermediate staff of 1st defendant to counter claim. (b) That the 2nd Counter Claimant’s appointment was terminated for unethical conduct from the services of 1st defendant to counter claim. (c) That the 2nd Counter Claimant attempted to extort the Congress through the payment of claims that could not be substantiated. (d) That as a result of the termination of the 2nd Counter Claimant’s appointment, the 2nd Counter Claimant is now using the platform of the 1st Counter Claimant to mint and spew malicious and libellous falsehood against the current leadership of the 1st defendant to counter claim. (e) That the 1st Counter Claimant, in its “current tirades” is violating basic journalism ethics.”
National Record and its publisher averred that “the so-called facts outlined in the press release” orchestrated by the NLC, Wabba and Ugboaja “are untrue, and fabrications aimed at defaming [and] portraying them in bad light in the eyes of the public and also bullying or intimidating them from engaging in journalism in the independent manner that they have done since May Day 2020 when the 1st Counter Claimant [National Record] officially kicked off.”
According to the joint statement of defence and counter claim, Comrade Onah averred that contrary to the claims in NLC’s press statement that he “was employed as an intermediate staff,” he instead “was engaged in the service of the Nigeria Labour Congress in July 2009 on Congress Grade Level 12 as an Assistant General Secretary,” a principal officer position of the Congress, which qualified him to be “posted to the department of information as acting head.”
Onah further averred that as opposed to the false claim by the NLC, Wabba and Ugboaja in the press statement that his “appointment was terminated for unethical conduct,” his appointment with the NLC “was terminated on grounds of an “on-going reorganization in congress”, a false claim he challenged in court and won in Suit No: NIC/ABJ/47/2011.
He further averred that contrary to the claim by the NLC, Wabba and Ugboaja, that he attempted to extort the NLC, he had rather “only demanded for his right vis; payment of the NLC’s part of the contributory pension scheme for about 27 months as ordered by the Court in the judgment of the court in Suit No: NIC/ABJ/47/2011,” an averment he backed up with documented evidence of communication between himself and the defendants to counter claim.
National Record and its publisher, in their joint statement of defence and counter claim, reiterated their strict adherence to “a track record of unbiased reporting, abiding by the ethics of the profession,” further stressing that they are “not lopsided in their reports of the facts as they concern the Nigeria Labour Congress, anyone or any entity,” an assertion they demonstrated by outlining some published reports of NLC’s statements and activities.
Onah also averred that contrary to the impression created by the NLC, Wabba and Ugboaja in the press statement and the claimant’s statement of claim that he harbours malice, malevolence, spite, ill-will and bad faith which drive him to impugn, malign, injure, assassinate and destroy his (Wabba) image, that the Congress and the Claimant had on a number of occasions relied on him and his publication for their publication needs, owing to his record of impeccable journalism and writing skills over the years.
Onah in his witness statement on oath averred that after exiting the NLC, he had continued to work closely with the foremost labour centre in Nigeria. He averred that in 2016, and under the leadership of Wabba, he as staff of the Centre for Labour Studies and Advocacy (CLASA) served as a consultant in conducting NLC’s Leadership Retreat held in Tinapa, Cross River State, from which he wrote, edited and produced a 170-page report on behalf of the NLC entitled: “The Report of the Leadership Retreat Organised by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) Held on August 25-27, 2015 at Tinapa Lakeside Hotel Calabar, Cross River State.”
Onah further averred that more recently, in September 2022, the Claimant, Comrade Wabba, presented to the public the history book of the NLC entitled: Contemporary History of Working Class Struggles (1978 – 2018), a historic book that largely credits verifiable achievements of the NLC, having him (Onah) as a key player and one of the authors.
The counter claimants are therefore praying the court for the following: “A Declaration that the actions of the Defendants to the Counter claim in making various communications to the Counter Claimants herein, culminating in dragging the Counter Claimants to court, amounts to undue harassment, and an attempt to intimidate and interfere with the activities of the Counter Claimants.
“A Declaration that the published press statement of the Defendants to the Counter Claim dated 31st December, 2022 in respect of the Counter Claimants is untrue, malicious, vexatious, demeaning and amounts to libel.
“A Declaration that the Defendants to the Counter Claim are jointly and severally liable for defaming the character of the Counter Claimants.
“An Order directing the Defendants to the Counter Claim to pay the Counter Claimants the sum of N100,000,000.00 (One Hundred Million Naira) only as general damages.
“An Order directing the Defendants to the Counter Claim to pay the Counter Claimants the sum of Five Hundred Thousand Naira (N500,000.00) only, being the cost of this suit including filing fees and service fees.”